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Monday, June 9, 2008

Do You Speak American?

Being that we listen to people speaking English most every day (unless you do translation transcription), I found this article to be very interesting and informative on the way our language is changing. There are several comments made and follow-up comments that are quite interesting as well that can be viewed here.

State of American
Is American English in trouble? Is it falling apart as some would suggest, or merely changing with the times?

Below is the original message from Dr. Finegan that helped get the conversation rolling, followed by your emails.

Do you object to “gonna,” “snuck,” and “like” (in, like, “I’m like I don’t care”)? Are you one of those who from a mile away can spot a split infinitive (“to swiftly resolve”) and take offense? Or are such points of linguistic usage unimportant in the overall scheme of effective communication?

Language differences across age groups and ethnic and other social groups sometimes attract strident attention. But, truth to tell, most differences and developments occur with little notice at all. Talk about the decline of English tends to focus on pronunciations like “aks” (for ask) and “nucular,” on spellings like “would of” (for would’ve) or plurals sprinkled too liberally with parmesan apostrophes, and on miscellaneous innovations such as the handful arising for the versatile like. Only lexicographers and linguists note most innovative expressions and meanings, and they too overlook many of them. “Snuck” snuck by on the road to standard usage, even if sneaked hasn’t been deep-sixed yet. Dived and dove still battle it out for victory. Commonly today a thing that “begs the question” prompts a question (it is not something ‘assumed without proof or warrant’). Even though many dictionaries haven’t noted the new meaning, are the chattering classes wrong to use it? And if they don’t, how will it get into dictionaries? Or maybe it shouldn’t!

No slouch among linguistic conservators, Dr. Samuel Johnson knew that language change could not be halted: “to enchain syllables, and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride, unwilling to measure its desires by its strength.” Still, many Americans fret about threats to “good diction,” “proper grammar,” and “standard pronunciation.” Forget mudslides, earthquakes, hurricanes, and tornadoes: The alleged downward spiral of English is our peril.

Are people right to worry, then? Certainly, too many high school graduates cannot adequately understand the standard English appearing even in magazines like Newsweek and newspapers like The Cincinnati Enquirer. Without access to serious discussions of important issues, events, and proposals, informed civic involvement will suffer. But the ability to read and understand is largely independent of language change and pronunciation (witness the use of characters in some Asian languages). Standard written English (the print variety used in public arenas for public purposes) and standard spoken English (heard in public forums) must be understood by all persons participating intelligently in a democracy. Such standard varieties are, however, more or less distinct from the varieties most of us use in intimate communications with family and friends.

In my view, a relatively stable (but not rigid) written standard, along with tolerance for group differences in pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammatical form used in conversation would serve the nation well. Dr. Johnson recognized that “sounds are too volatile and subtile for legal restraints.” Who would claim his “subtile” or our “subtle” is misspelled? A vital language will change as its speakers and writers live their lives.